CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines—There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer, it is said.
For the 30 foreigners who have offered their time to work in the disaster-stricken areas of Cagayan de Oro City, shoveling off flood-carried mud and debris from houses and helping build houses for families who will be relocated from high-risk areas along the riverbanks, the feeling is hard to quantify.
By now, residents, particularly in Barangays Balulang and Calaanan, are very familiar with the foreigners, who have been living in their midst for almost a month. Their group, All Hands Volunteers, is a US-based nonprofit organization that extends hands-on assistance to survivors of natural disasters around the world.
“We pride ourselves in accepting people who usually do not have the skills. A volunteer can come into the group and do meaningful work even without having the necessary skills, just as long as they are willing to help others,” says Chris Turner, project director for Cagayan de Oro.
The All Hands story began in 2005 after the devastating tsunami that struck countries in South Asia the year before. David Campbell, an American businessman, went to disaster-stricken Thailand to look into the situation and offer help to survivors. He eventually became one of the founders of HandsOnThailand, which brought more than 200 volunteers and financial assistance to help rebuild five fishing villages in Phuket.
In 2005, the HandsOn volunteers offered assistance to survivors of Hurricane Katrina in the United States. Six years later, nearly 10,000 volunteers from 40 countries responded to 24 disaster projects in eight countries around the world.
In 2010, their group came to be known as All Hands Volunteers.
All Hands responded to Cagayan de Oro’s cry for help following the onslaught of Tropical Storm “Sendong” on Dec. 17 last year.
Turner arrived on Jan. 2 for the preliminary evaluation. “We had to look at the scale of the damage. If there are more than 10,000 homes damaged, then we do volunteer work there,” he said.
According to the United Nations, nearly 48,000 homes were damaged during the Sendong devastation.
The group also had to look at the capacity of the local government to respond to the situation.
After its initial study, All Hands suggested two needed activities: clearing mud and debris and building permanent shelters.
As part of a community-based approach, it secured a housing site just outside the Tent City and established a positive reputation and tight relationships with the victims.
On Jan. 20, volunteers from the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland flew in and immediately started working with local organizations and alongside community members in flood-affected areas around the city.
Among the first batch to arrive was project coordinator Jessica Thompson, who hails from London. She expressed admiration for the locals, especially the survivors, for their ability to be resilient in times of disaster.
“The people have been very friendly … they are motivated to help themselves and everybody works together so it’s a really nice atmosphere,” she said.
Before engaging in volunteer work, Thompson used to teach preschool children. Feeling that something was lacking in her life, she decided to do volunteer work in disaster-stricken areas—where she found true happiness.
“Most of our work is to help people move back into their homes. It is so much more rewarding that we get to live in the same community with the people … we don’t stay separated from the people,” she said.
She said she was especially proud of her organization because it gives people a chance to help others. “You just have to be willing to work and help other people,” she added.
Although there are no criteria for those who want to join All Hands, it is suggested that the volunteers should be in good physical health because much of the work involves manual labor. Most of the volunteers are in their late 20s and early 30s.
Among those who stand out is American Bruce Jones who, at 54, is the oldest in the group. Jones has participated in volunteer work since 2005 and has always made sure to offer his services each year when he gets a break from maintaining nine golf courses during wintertime in the United States.
“Doing volunteer work keeps my life in perspective. Every year, I get to work with people, meet a lot of people,” he said.
Since he arrived in early February, Jones has been passionately working in Emily Homes, one of the hardest-hit areas in Balulang. Each day, his five-member team travels from Canitoan to Balulang in a rented jeepney and brings along shovels, wheelbarrows and other tools to the work area.
At first, he observed that the residents were holding back and were quite hesitant to accept their help. But he was able to establish rapport, especially with the children, by simply talking to them, taking their photos and showing these to them.
Part of culture
Now, Jones knows a lot of the people and is moved every time they say “thank you” for the help or offer something to them.
“People are always trying to offer food and water … they don’t have to do that. But I understand that it is part of your culture. It’s really a fantastic way to meet a lot of new people,” he said.
Indeed, the volunteers have become a popular sight in the area. Precy Sembrano, a resident of Emily Homes since it opened in 1991, only has praises for them.
“It is such a sight to see foreigners cleaning our homes. They really work hard … I don’t even see them taking a lot of breaks from the manual work. I really admire them for this,” she said.
All Hands is committed to stay until March 20, but Chris Turner believes that they should be here longer because a lot of work still needs to be done.
Turner said the situation in Cagayan de Oro is not that complicated as it is safe and developed enough. He said the group did not have much difficulty coordinating with the local officials because trucks are often provided to take away the debris they had removed.
“The local government was receptive and welcoming to international presence,” he said.
Turner also said uncertainties still remained as to how families were chosen for relocation to the permanent sites. “I do not really understand how the selection process will go through. But if it is challenging for me, then it must be more for them,” he said.
But politics aside, it is the little things that matter in doing volunteer work. “What’s really rewarding about this is getting to interact with the local community … a simple smile on the homeowner’s face or playing soccer with the kids simply feels great,” Turner said.
And as Jones puts it, “I stay away from politics, that’s why I enjoy helping people.”